SOPA would have compelled not only social media platforms, but any kind of website that allows its audience to post comments or upload other content, to monitor and censor their users lest some posting or image violates somebody’s copyright—as alleged solely by that copyright-holder. Failure to do so would result in the website being blacklisted and expose its owners to lawsuits and even criminal prosecution. SOPA and the Senate’s sister bill, the Protect IP Act, would have empowered the US Attorney General to order the blockage of allegedly infringing websites—based anywhere on earth.
The drafters of SOPA and Protect IP did not set out to constrain online dissent and activism, independent investigative journalism, or opposition media. Their goal was to protect intellectual property; specifically to stop IP infringement carried out or facilitated by overseas websites—which is obviously a huge concern to the media companies that own movie studios and music labels as well as news organizations.
Small online news organizations and independent journalists around the world also hope to earn a living from the sale of their own intellectual property. Most would agree that some intellectual property law and enforcement mechanisms are necessary. But if one is not part of a major big brand American or European media company, the threats posed by SOPA vastly outweighed the potential upside.
This is in no small part because the legal and technical solutions proposed in these bills are—at a practical and technical level—very similar to mechanisms used by authoritarian regimes in forcing the private sector to censor and monitor Internet users, which of course include news organizations and investigative journalists seeking to expose corporate and government malfeasance.
It is disturbing indeed that major US media companies not only supported but lobbied aggressively for the passage of a law that was strongly opposed by free speech, human rights, and civil liberties organizations including Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Reporters Without Borders, Article 19, Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Then there is the issue of net neutrality. The debate over net neutrality is about whether Internet service providers—broadband or wireless—should be allowed to discriminate between different sources of content and different types of services that you might want to access.
The Internet’s empowering nature has been based largely on the fact that any citizen or aspiring journalist can potentially create media and reach global audiences just by sending a tweet or publishing a blog.
On a “neutral” Internet, it doesn’t matter what platform you use—your video, blog post, or podcast is equally accessible to anybody anywhere (as long as a government isn’t trying to censor it).
On a non-neutral Internet, your service provider could offer a “tiered” access package in which access to certain services belonging to major brand names (Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, and Facebook, for example) would be cheaper than access to the general Internet or to lesser known applications and platforms. Brand-name companies could pay the ISP for the privilege of gaining preferential access to users at lower or no cost. Or an ISP could demand money from popular services in exchange for smooth and fast delivery. Or it could deny access to certain services entirely.
If Internet Service Providers fail to adhere to net neutrality principles, the bulk of Internet users will be driven by lower prices, faster speeds, and easier access to the larger, well-financed, commercially operated platforms for everything, including their news consumption. Scrappy startups and nonprofit public interest journalism projects that build and operate their own websites from scratch are at a distinct disadvantage in such a world.
Lack of neutrality has other consequences for global information flows, which people in wealthy industrialized nations often fail to consider. Technologists in the developing world point out that if networks in the world’s major Internet markets cease to be neutral, poor and developing nations will be at an even greater disadvantage in the global marketplace of online content and services.